College of Letters and Science faculty member Merlaine Angwall offered the following remarks at UW Oshkosh’s spring commencement ceremony on May 14 at Kolf Sports Center:
“Thank you very much. Chancellor Leavitt, Provost Earns, Dean Koker, representative Hintz, members of the faculty, graduates, parents and friends. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today at this magnificent commencement ceremony.
“Congratulations! You made it. You took on the challenge, a four-year $50,000 challenge. And you conquered it. You now belong to a select minority of the American population. You’ve earned a baccalaureate. You had some help, perhaps a lot of help, but the diploma has only your name on it.
“Be Proud of your Achievement! You’ve earned respect. Give yourselves a hand! Take a bow!
“Now what? You start again. Being in the theatre, and being a director, I am accustomed to giving everyone notes in rehearsal and especially on the final dress rehearsal.
“These past years have been your rehearsal. We have watched you grow, try, take risks, fail, try again and succeed. Today is your final full dress rehearsal. Tomorrow, you start your own production run, your 60-year production run.
“So, here are your final director’s notes. Don’t worry, there are only 10 of them. Some of these will sound familiar to the theatre majors who are graduating today.
- Arrive Early: Arriving early signals that you’ve got your act together, you respect the people you are working with and the project you are working on. Show up, be early and be there for others and yourself. There are only two times arriving early doesn’t work: a party and a date.
- Learn to collaborate: Life, like theatre, is an ensemble art form. Learn to work with everyone, even the people you disagree with. Remember no one becomes a star by themselves. Everyone needs a supporting cast.
- In the theatre we say, ‘remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.’ Goes without saying, this is a basic. You learn the basics early on so that they become second nature to you. Remember the basics. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’
- Listen: Listen to your voice within. Listen to each other. Even if that person disagrees with you. Cultivate the ability to entertain the uncomfortable. Put down the phone.
- Spencer Tracy said, ‘look the other actor straight in the eyes and tell the truth.’ Find the truth, speak the truth. You are a product of the Wisconsin idea. Whatever you have learned here can be applied to solving problems, improving health, improving quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all the citizens of the world. Speak the truth. No matter what you do when leave here, your liberal arts background will help you to cultivate the Wisconsin idea.
- Dare to take risks. Learn to improvise: When I was just out of college my friend Laura, who was a dancer and an actor, asked me to accompany her to a national Dr. Pepper commercial audition. I reluctantly agreed, saying I would keep her company, but I had no intention of auditioning myself. This was a cattle call audition and there were hundreds of trained dancers there. I didn’t want to risk making a fool of myself auditioning for a commercial that required an extensive dance background. When we arrived they asked everyone to stand against the wall and wait. They gave all of us, including me, a number. Next thing I know, I’m in a large gymnasium trying to learn a dance combination from some hot shot choreographer from L.A. and the Dr. Pepper spokesman at the time, an actor named David Naughton. Your parents and grandparents might remember him from the film, ‘An American Werewolf in London.’ So I’m trying desperately to learn this choreography—they teach it to you in about 90 seconds—while pretending to have a can of Dr. Pepper in my hand and singing the jingle: ‘I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too. Be a Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…’ Anyway, this is all happening very fast and David Naughton is yelling at everyone and screaming, ‘Come on, sell me that soda!” Move! Make me want to be a Pepper!’
I had no idea what my feet were doing. I could have been doing the tango, the foxtrot or running for a touchdown—I didn’t know. I looked like I was fighting off bats. I knew I wasn’t doing the correct choreography, one look at the wafer-thin dancers told me that. There were people with clipboards who go around tapping auditionees on the shoulder— which means you’re out. I caught the eye of my friend Laura—for some reason we had not been tapped yet, we were still in it. And then we got the giggles. Then it turned to laughing, especially every time ‘the Werewolf’ yelled at me. My friend Laura got tapped on the shoulder and was out, but I couldn’t stop laughing. At that point, I thought, hey- there’s no reason this can’t be fun; and I was improvising and making up choreography and selling that soda like I was in a Dr. Pepper cult. I thought, what the heck, I can do this! So from about one hundred people they parred it down to eight and I was one of the eight because I could improvise. When you combine a liberal arts background with what you love, you can accomplish anything. And by the way, here’s one of the things I’ve learned since the ‘Dr. Pepper incident:’ anytime someone puts you up against the wall and gives you a number, you will be in one of three places: a jail, a firing squad or a cattle call audition.
- Don’t be intimidated by ‘The Critics.’ Be intrepid, undaunted and confident. A critic once said of one of my performances, ‘watching Merlaine Angwall in this role is like watching a bad impersonation of Ethel Mermann.’ Not even a good impersonation! There will be critics in your life, but in the end, you answer to yourself. Be proud of your work.
According to Aristotle, ‘There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing and be nothing.’ Which leads me to No. 8:
- Don’t be afraid to make a mistake: You can learn from a mistake. There is nothing you can learn from being afraid. My hope for you on this commencement is that you will continue to be curious, to learn, to take risks, and grow from your mistakes. You have earned your degree but you will continue to be a student of life. Be proud of your liberal arts education. Maybe your education can’t be put on display or even put to immediate use. There is no formula for success after graduation. You will need to have faith in yourself, and you will succeed if you treat everyone with respect, kindness and civility.
- Help with the laundry
- Have faith in yourself. Tell your story, live your story. John Lennon said, ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.’
“Congratulations class of 2016! You have had a four year rehearsal and now you get to play a starring role in your own life. On with the show and break a leg!”